Empowering disenfranchised voices and humanizing incarcerated women was Chinonye Chukwu’s main goal for her film project: Pens to Pictures.
As a part of the Film Studies semester film series, DePauw University alumnus, filmmaker and professor Chinonye Chukwu '07 will screen “5 Films by 5 Women” in the Peeler Auditorium.
Seth Friedman, director of Film Studies, and Christine White, professor of English, brought Pens to Pictures to DePauw, showing students future possibilities in filmmaking from a DePauw alumnus herself.
“People often, because of Hollywood cinema, don’t often realize the ways in which films can make productive contributions to society, culture, and local communities,” said Friedman. “I think this provides a unique opportunity to bring all those things together...where we can discuss with the filmmakers directly.”
The film is a compilation of five narratives, all written and co-directed by women incarcerated in the Dayton Correctional Institution (DCI) in Dayton, Ohio entitled “Bang, ” “Love or Loyalty,” “Trans-Parent,” “The Devastating Game,” and “For They Know Not.”
The film is the first in Chukwu’s Pens to Pictures collaborative group, formed to empower incarcerated women from script to screen and create a spotlight for their narratives.
Chukwu’s interest in American prison systems began after Sept. 21, 2001, when a black man, Troy Davis, was executed in a Georgia state prison.
“That was the first moment I consciously became involved in the American prison system, about the death penalty… and the larger implications of his case,” said Chukwu. “I really started pursuing knowledge about the American prison system and [that] led to the writing of my future script for ‘Clemency’.”
While researching for her upcoming feature film, Chukwu listened to dozens of people directly connected to the prison system and felt those narratives needed to be heard.
“I quickly realized that most of their stories would never leave the prison walls,” said Chukwu. “For years I’d been teaching at the collegiate level…but my teaching shouldn’t be limited to the privileged walls of collegiate classrooms.”
Subsequently, she started teaching a screenwriting course at DCI, and created the intensive screenwriting and production project with the women enrolled.
In the inaugural Pens to Pictures class in March 2016, five women’s original screenplays were chosen and workshopped for eight weeks.
Each woman was paired with student co-directors and a crew to support the production, but Chukwu said that “all creative decisions were made by them.”
The entire production and post-production process took a little under a year, and the first Pens to Pictures project screened across the country at various universities, conventions, prisons, festivals and other community spaces.
As the Pens to Pictures collaborative group moves into their next class of filmmakers, Chukwu hopes to expand to more states to offer this opportunity to both women in correctional facilities and undergraduate students.
“One of the many things that made this experience so powerful is that it is directly linked to education facilities,” said Chukwu. “It really does enhance the curriculum and the work because it empowers students to root their learning in purpose and practice.”
After coming back to DePauw this week, Chukwu reflected on her time as an undergraduate at DePauw and how some of her professors, like White and Samuel Autman, assistant professor of English, had a profound impact on her pursuit of filmmaking.
“Chris White … was the only film production professor I had who taught me screenwriting, and she really introduced me to the structure of screenwriting,” said Chukwu. “Samuel Autman was my professor as an 18 year old… and that was the last time I saw Samuel for a decade.”
Autman and Chukwu reconnected when Chukwu came back to DePauw to screen her first feature film “AlaskaLand,” and they began their creative collaboration and longtime friendship. Chukwu adapted one of Autman’s memoirs into her short film “A Long Walk.”
“I have watched her grow from student to professor… I think the thing that I’ve seen in her is the importance of doing a discipline that you really love, and she loves screenwriting,” said Autman. “That’s a good lesson for students.”
Chukwu and Autman both note the uniqueness of close friendships that can happen on a small campus like DePauw. “Samuel continues to be an integral part of my life,” said Chukwu. “He taught me how to teach with a purpose..how to be an effective educator...and pushed me to be a better storyteller.”
Like her professors, Chukwu, as an educator and an advocate, hopes to encourage her students, both collegiate and non, to pursue storytelling.
“The Pens to Pictures experience really does remind students that they are a part of a community and that we’re all in this together,” said Chukwu.
Students can watch “5 Films by 5 Women” on Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Peeler auditorium, followed by a Q&A with Chukwu.